We Need Male AlliesApril 16, 2009
“Men are essential to feminism and to ending sexual assault. If they weren’t, we’d already have ended it.”
— Jerin Alam, president, Hunter Women’s Rights Coalition, Hunter College, New York, during a workshop presentation
This week I attended Men Can Stop Rape’s first annual conference, focused on men and women as allies in the primary prevention of men’s violence against women. The conference brought together campus activists, crisis center employees, government officials, and nonprofit employees who all are striving to end sexual assault.
Timed during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the conference opened with a dialogue between a female and a male ally. Ritu Sharma, president of Women Thrive Worldwide, and Byron Hurt, a director/producer and founding member of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, sat on stage and spoke with each other about their work to address sexual violence and exchanged ideas about how women and men can better work together to address the problem. They talked through issues like the struggle to have women trust men as allies after being violated by violent men and how male allies still have to struggle every day to acknowledge their male privilege and not abuse it. I found the dialogue to be engaging, and I thought it set a great tone for the rest of the conference.
I’m still processing everything I learned during the two-day conference, but I’ll mention one theme I noticed among speakers and workshop presenters.
Basically, every speaker or workshop presenter who had been working on sexual assault issues for many years, like Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Catherine Pierce, director of the Office on Violence Against Women in the U.S. Department of Justice, talked about or at least mentioned how wonderful it was to see men at the conference. When the anti-sexual assault movement began a few decades ago, the focus was helping victims and survivors with direct services and resources. Since most survivors are women, as are most of those who utilize such resources, women were the focus. Men were largely absent. They tended (and many still tend) to see violence against women and sexual assault as a “women’s issue” and not something they had (or have) to address because it did (or does) not concern them. Also, some women were hesitant to trust men as allies in the movement when faced with the question of including them.
Recently, there has been a shift among sexual assault activists and organizations to address prevention in addition to direct services to victims and to engage and include men in this work. Since most perpetrators of sexual assault are male — which is not the same as saying most men are perpetrators, because most are not — it is imperative for men to be part of the conversation and the effort to prevent sexual assault. Men look to other men for approval and for affirmation of their masculinity, so men can really make all the difference. As more men realize that sexual violence is not a women’s issue, particularly when one in six men are victims/survivors, and since most men know women or girls who have been assaulted or worry about being assaulted, hopefully more will help end it.
At the local level, conference attendees shared their experiences with organizing men around the issue on their campus or in their community. For example, a campus “chocolate and sex” night included frank discussions about consent and healthy sexual relations yet was advertised and framed in a nonthreatening, interesting way. It helped expose men to the concepts and opened the door to activism if they wanted to go that route. At a national level, Byron Hurt and Ben Atherton-Zeman talked about using theater, hip-hop, a documentary, and honest conversations to make issues of masculinity and sexual assault accessible to young men.
I left the conference heartened by all the work individuals are doing at local, state, and national levels, on campuses, in communities, and through government agencies. This is a great time to be involved in sexual assault activism because, with the growing pool of male allies, I think significant preventative change can occur.